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Unleash Your Full Potential

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  • Writer's pictureLori Lee

Why to-do lists don't work and what you need instead

Throw your to-do lists in the trash. It's time for the rise of a to-done list. To-do lists are overwhelming, never-ending, and always seem to be getting longer. In fact, studies reveal that they don't work at all. If we have a list of 8 items or greater, our brain wants to shut down!


You can hack your brain chemistry and try something different to boost your productivity. For that, you need a to-done list in your life. Here's why.



Why to-do lists don't work and to-done lists work better

Basically, to-do lists make us feel like crap. All of us could write down the endless tasks that we have to do on paper, without considering how lucky we are that we get to do all these tasks. Those of you who have ever felt purposeless will know what I mean. Having too much to do, is extremely overwhelming; but when we try logging the reverse, it has profound mental effects.


To-Done lists help us focus on the good

Have you ever finished writing a to-do list, and then became instantly overwhelmed? I know that I have. While a to-do list is great for remembering what you need to do, it isn't good for getting us to actually do it. What we need is accountability and gratitude to be inspired to do more with our lives. A to-done list gives us both of those things.


Instead of starting your day with a never-ending list of "I have to's", you end the day with a list of "I got to's." A to-done list often encourages us to focus on the negative, something that we do far too much of. But a to-done list teaches us how to start focusing on the silver lining. Even if you had what feels like an unproductive day, you'll realize that you achieved more than what you thought.


To-do lists give us a false sense of accomplishment

How good does writing a to-do list feel? Especially a long one. And in that moment we tell ourselves we really will complete all of it this time, but we rarely do. It gives us this false sense of accomplishment and a feeling of control. It doesn't inspire action.


I tell you what does inspire action, a to-done list. Why? Because they hold us accountable to our word. We know that we can't enjoy the task of mentally organizing our lives until we do that thing that we set out to do. It's the meal log for healthy eaters or writing your sets and reps for the muscle builders. The to-done list is your very own accountability partner. A to-do list is ideal but the to-done list is real.


To-done lists hack our happy brain chemistry

When you complete what you set out to do you feel a sense of accomplishment. When you write down all the things that you're meant to do, you feel a sense of lack. So what goes on at the neurological level when we feel a sense of accomplishment?


When we achieve a goal, we get a hit of dopamine - a pleasure hormone. A to-done list helps you release more by celebrating the small wins. When you take the time to notice the 15-minute workout that you managed or the extra meeting that you fit in with a struggling team member, it tells your brain that you're winning! A to-do list just doesn't have this same effect.


So, what's a to-done list, and how to do it right


What is a to-done list and how do you write one? Well, it's pretty straightforward — write down what you did today. But there are a few steps that you need to take to ensure that you stay inspired, and focused on your goals.

  • Only write down items that you've fully completed.

  • Be insanely specific.

  • Write down the little things.

1. It's got to be a completed task

This should be a given, but remember that false sense of accomplishment that a to-do list will provide? You might find yourself wanting to fall back into that old habit if you find that you're procrastinating. Rule number one of to-done lists is that you can only write it down if you've fully completed it.


2. Be insanely specific

Wishy-washy items are the enemy of your psyche. Your brain (well, ego) wants so much validation. It's the difference between being told "you have beautiful eyes" compared to, "I love the little brown speckle in your left eye." A bit weird, but charming at the same time. If you made it into the gym today, write down which muscle group you worked, or how long you worked out. If you met up with a team member, write down what you achieved from the meeting. You'll feel so much more grateful for your hard work and want to do more.


3. Include the little things

The little things are important. Especially on the days when it feels like getting out of bed deserves a round of applause. If you're currently sleeping in until 10 am, but today you woke up at 9:30 am, then that deserves to be on your to-done list. Wherever you're at, celebrate the little wins so that you can keep the momentum up in your life.


Save this picture to get you started

Starting your own to-done list should be easy enough. But if you want to elevate yourself to the next level, then consider a bullet journal that will keep you on track towards getting your goals. The Goal Getting Journal utilizes positive psychology principles to hack your productivity for goal-getting success. Share your wins with us!




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